A rebuttal to Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women” Episode 1: Damsels in Distress

During my unhappy year in Japan, a favorite method for passing the days was collecting CDs of Japanese clip-art. Like many foreigners, I had been overwhelmed by Japan’s dizzying array of holidays and festivals, and hoped studying clip-art could offer a crash course in their traditions and symbols. What more condensed summary of a holiday is there, after all, than the cartoons found on a hastily-made pool closure sign?

Japanese mothers
Japanese “mother” clip-art

Browsing these cartoon archives, what immediately struck was the bizarrely retro depiction of women. If a CD contained a stock image of a “mother,” she was probably wearing a kitchen apron (a pink one) and holding a frying pan or a duster or some other tool of domestic life. Sometimes even at the park. There were no clip-art pictures of female executives, female athletes, female cops, female construction workers, or basically any female in a physically demanding or otherwise non-stereotypical job. Everyone had long hair. Everyone was in a dress. Coming from a culture where even the back of board game boxes are painstakingly crafted to create a perfectly politically-correct tableau of gender and multicultural empowerment, the contrast was striking.

I asked some of my female Japanese co-workers about it, and they seemed nonplussed. “That’s just how women are seen here,” they said. But then again, many of them were only working to kill time before marriage.

This is the sort of cultural context missing — in fact, aggressively not present — in Anita Sarkeesian’s recently-released and much-watched YouTube mini-documentary on video games “Damsels in Distress,” the first of what promises to be a long series of feminist critiques of depictions of women in gaming, or as she puts it, “Tropes Vs. Women.”

Sarkeesian spends 23 minutes criticizing the gross and cliched way females were depicted in video games during the 1980s and ’90s, which, as her thesis/title suggests, was primarily as passive victims captured by villains, and thus shiny objects to be collected by the game’s hero, rather than characters with any sort of agency of their own. It’s an accurate observation, but considering almost every game she cites in her catalog of “Damsels in Distress” are Japanese titles produced by Japanese developers for a primarily Japanese market, there’s an obvious cultural commonality here that goes inexcusably unexplored.

I’m no master of Japanese sociology, but it’s hardly an obscure fact that Japan has one of the worst track records of any major industrialized democracy when it comes to rates of female participation in the workforce, female political participation, female representation in corporate leadership, female university enrollment, and female income equality. Until very recently, the Japanese classified pages openly stated that women need not apply for certain jobs. A deliberate lack of childcare options ensures the working single mother is virtually non-existent.

The social limitations Japanese women face in daily life obviously manifest clearly in Japanese popular culture. I suppose until you’ve been there, it’s hard to fully appreciate just how entrenched and uncontroversial the image of the hysterical, weeping, fragile, dependent, know-nothing female remains. You see her constantly in soap operas, in anime, in music, in advertisements, even in politics. (I was once handed a flyer by a supporter of a woman who was running for mayor. The thing was entirely pink and offered little argument beyond “why not a woman?”)

Thanks to the perennial western fascination with Japan’s more depraved subcultures, most of us are also now well familiar with the grotesquely vicious and misogynist images that abound in the robust Japanese industry of highly-specialized cartoon fetish porn, and the soft-prostitution racket known as “maid cafes,” which feature women serving men cookies and drinks clad not only in skimpy outfits, but absurdly fawning and servile attitudes even a Hooter’s waitress would find demeaning.

In her 23 minutes, Sarkeesian says the word “Japanese” exactly once. Completely disinterested in the cultural roots of her subject matter, to her, “video games” are simply things that randomly emerged from some neutral ether, as opposed to a particular sort of corporation run by a particular sort of person living in a particular sort of country.

This is not an uncommon perspective for white progressive-types to take, of course, loath as they are to offer any critique that could possibly smack of bigotry or ethnocentrism. But the uncomfortable fact remains that feminism, of the sort we in the west are most familiar with, is simply not entrenched in Japan the way it is here. Any worthwhile critique of female video game depictions in the 1980s and 1990s would thus have to focus on the extent to which these images arrived in our households through a “perfect storm” of culturally regressive variables, in which the industrialized world’s most dominant creator of video game software was also the nation with some of the most unapologetically un-American views towards what is and isn’t a culturally permissible way to present women.

And for that matter, we should recall that these insensitive depictions didn’t go unnoticed in the States. Far from blindly embracing the oft-offensive female “Damsel in Distress” images Japan offered in their games, the degree to which American business aggressively sought to soften and tame the harsh sexist edges of Japanese video games after import is a fascinating story in its own right, and an absolutely critical component of any larger discussion of gaming from a western, feminist perspective.

At one point, Sarkeesian passively notes that the female “Damsel in Distress” in Double Dragon (a 1987 offering of Tokyo-based Technos Japan) has her panties involuntarily exposed in “several versions” of the game. She neglects to mention that those “several versions” were the Japanese ones — at the time, Nintendo of America had a stated policy banning images “which specifically denigrates members of either sex,” and so Double Dragon‘s damsel, like many other female video game characters of the time, was forced to cover up prior to the game’s U.S. release. Nintendo of America was actually quite the little moralizing busybody in those days, removing strippers, Playboy bunnies, scantily-clad fairies, and even bare-chested Greco-Roman sculptures from all manner of Japanese titles during the 1980s and ’90s, lest any impressionable young Americans be subjected to such crass depictions.

Sarkeesian similarly opts to ignore the heavy-handed American role model-ization of otherwise sexist and forgettable female video game stars that defined the era she purports to document.

She sneers derisively at the fact that Princess Toadstool only appeared as a playable character in Super Mario Bros. 2 “kinda accidentally” because the real Japanese version of SMB2 was considered too difficult for American audiences, necessitating some other game be released stateside. So Americans got a different game with a playable Princess, which was also the last time she appeared in a starring role. The exception that proves the rule, in other words.

And that’s true. No other Mario game was ever again explicitly designed for an American audience. I don’t think anyone who grew up with the American Super Mario Bros. 2 can forget how enormously popular playing as the Princess was — I have fond memories of my father dogmatically insisting there was no better character, thanks to her gimmicky long-jump power — and I think it’s fair to say her inclusion was actually something of a positive watershed moment in the way Americans perceived women in games. Not that a playable female character was anything particularly new for U.S. audiences, of course — America was also the country that created Ms. Pac-Man, lest we forget.

It’s also worth noting that while Princess Toadstool’s Japanese personality — the whiny, weepy, petticoat-wearing airhead depicted in the Mario games — is undeniably cringe-inducing, her American image was always significantly different thanks to a vast American-made canon of Mario Bros. comic strips, coloring books, choose-your-own-adventure novels, television shows, educational software, and even a feature film that collectively broadened her personality well beyond that of a one-dimensional prop. In American media, in fact, the Princess was basically a leading example of one of the great feminist media tropes of the 1990s, the cliched “Wise Woman,” who stands alone as an island of adult sanity amidst a supporting cast of bumbling, infantile men.

American Mario fans who read the Valiant comic book series or watched the Saturday morning cartoon met a Princess who was calm, collected, and sensible, a savvy political ruler of a vast kingdom (the Japanese games never take her role as “princess” this literally) and “definitely no old-fashioned damsel-in-distress,” in the words of the TV show’s writers’ bible. I recently re-watched an episode of The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 animated series I remember quite liking as a child — the plot featured a workaholic Princess taking a “much-needed vacation” in Hawaii while her kingdom fell into predictable chaos with dopey Mario and Luigi in charge.

Princess Zelda
Princess Zelda as the Japanese knew her (above) versus how Americans did (below).

The same was true of the other damsel singled out by Sarkeesian for particular disdain, Princess Zelda of Legend of Zelda fame. Once again we see a pattern: a sexist and corny Japanese in-game depiction softened by aggressive American attempts to establish the Princess as a competent and self-possessed heroine via an extended universe of comics and cartoons.

Zelda’s American makeover was even more dramatic than Toadstool’s. While the Japanese games depicted Zelda as a stereotypical princess in a flowing pink gown who did little more than sit around waiting to be rescued (in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link she spends literally the entire game under a Sleeping Beauty-style curse), the American comic book and cartoon version of the character was an athletic, aggressive bow-and-arrow slinging warrior-princess with knee-high boots and an all-business attitude. She was, in fact, a vastly more likable personality than the stupid and surly Link, the franchise’s supposed hero, whose pointless California accent and annoying catchphrases grate to this day.

In the case of Sonic the Hedgehog, a series Sarkeesian mentions only briefly, Sega of America’s merchandising department was so desperate for Sonic to have a strong female counterpart they created out of whole cloth: Princess Sally Acorn. The cuddly pink Amy Rose Sarkeesian cites as Sonic’s sexist answer to Toadstool and Zelda, though popular in Japan, was largely unknown to American audiences until quite recently. As was the case with the Zelda and Mario series, American Sonic fans who consumed the larger folkloric canon surrounding their gaming hero were repeatedly reminded that their on-screen male protagonist owed a lot to his “better half.”

Sarkeesian ignores absolutely all this, and instead asks for a feminist evaluation of the cultural impact of ’90s-era video games in a bizarre, vacuumed-sealed context in which countries, culture, politics, economics, and history simply do not exist. Hers is a sophistic argument in which a thoroughly American critique is given to a foreign nation’s cultural products as a way to draw some larger point about female rights in her own country, while simultaneously ignoring the large role progressive-minded American corporations — sensitive to decades of activism from American feminists — played in seeking to curb the very elements of Japanese sexism she finds so problematic.

I understand Sarkeesian’s video series was controversial when first proposed, generating both exaggerated contempt from defensive males unwilling to have their playthings insulted and exaggerated support from righteous feminists convinced that any self-proclaimed feminist critique of anything is always an unquestionable good.

I personally don’t know if we need a feminist critique of Japanese video games released nearly 30 years ago. In her video, Sarkeesian certainly makes no effort to explain why I — or anyone else — should care, since her confused muddling of cultures, ignorance of context, and disinterest in impact results in a “critique” without a clear target or purpose.

Something is not always better than nothing.